Essay, Pages 22 (5484 words)
The feelings of isolation and alienation can be frustrating, dangerous and eventually they can even drive a person mad. People have always dealt with such issues differently. Some managed to abandon those feelings and continued with their lives while others succumbed to them as they were unable to overcome and/or control them. Those souls who “surrendered” often faced destruction or even death as they were unable to cope with changes and the pressures of living a life below their expectations with no one to trust and confide, not even their beloved ones.
When people are alone and isolated for a certain amount of time there is a chance that they forget about real life and even become “bushed”. This is one of the many problems of vast countries such as Canada especially its dry prairies and northern arctic regions can change people.
In this essay, I will try to analyze and investigate different circumstances that can lead to emotional states, some of which are prominent themes in Canadian fiction – isolation, alienation, loneliness, loss of identity and madness.
Isolation and alienation can occur out of many reasons. It is not only an isolated landscape that may trigger feelings of loneliness, fear or helplessness, but also isolation and alienation from society or even people closest to you. Other definitions may also include spiritual and emotional isolation. In Sinclair Ross’ The Painted Door the protagonist Ann fells alone and isolated for many reasons.
Ann is not pleased with her life. She and her husband John live in the middle of nowhere, far away from company and populated settlements.
The remote surrounding in which they live creates a feeling of extreme isolation, especially after previously living in a city. After being exposed to this geographical isolation for some time, Ann’s feelings of loneliness eventually intensify to the point where she even feels alienated from her own husband. But at that point she does not realize that her yearning for a better and different life will consequently change her life for worse and will make her feel guilty and miserable for the rest of her life.
After having an affair with Steven she realizes that this is not what she really wanted and she also realizes that she has made a big mistake sleeping with him, while her husband was away. Therefore, we cannot consider Steven as the fulfillment of her desires for a better life, but rather as a temporary means to “cure” her from her isolation and loneliness. As John unexpectedly returns home during a storm, he witnesses the betrayal and leaves Ann never to return again.
… the explicit theme is centered on adultery. However, there are other, more subtle, motifs in the story that play a very significant role in its success. The themes essential in making the protagonist’s adultery understandable are the landscape, her isolation, and the feelings of betrayal and guilt that she experiences following the central act of the story. (The Painted Door)
Ultimately, Ann’s needs to feel loved and acknowledged, as well as her actions out of desperation and loneliness, lead her to the destruction of her life and, consequently, the life or her husband. The blizzard, which can be seen as a metaphor for passion, as well as the physical and emotional separation from her husband engage her to do things she probably, under “normal” circumstances, would not consider doing. Therefore, it is in those extreme conditions where we have to search for the driving force behind Ann’s adultery. The answers that would “justify” her actions and would, as well, give us an insight into her inner loneliness and isolation are all hidden in this seemingly unreal wasteland. In this story we can find:
…thematic elements considered the bedrock of Canadian writing: a landscape so bleak in winter that it seemed a region alien to life, but a house standing nonetheless standing against that wilderness, a refugee of feeble walls wherein persisted the elements of human meaning and survival. … A woman who wants fine things and a social life, but a slow, taciturn, country-bound husband who only aspires to paying of the mortgage. (Stouck 2005, 93)
The Painted Door is not Ross’ only short story dealing with issues such as isolation, alienation and madness. The other prominent example of him using such themes and motifs is The Lamp at Noon where Ross, by establishing a gloomy and intense atmosphere, creates a feeling of uneasiness and fear of the isolated and even manic environment which inevitably affects the story’s protagonists. It “illustrates how close to madness a person’s dreams of a better life may be juxtaposing the delusions harboured by a husband and a wife about their failing homestead.” (Estehammer 1992) The newlyweds Ellen and Paul moved from the city to a desert landscape during the time of the Great Depression to live as farmers in the Canadian prairie. Unfortunately, dust storms, as well as the soil’s dryness and lack of rain made their existence as happy and successful farmers almost impossible.
Nevertheless, Ellen, who came from a rich family, tried to be a model wife by taking care of the household and their baby, but the fact that they were living on an infertile and isolated farm made things worse day by day and contributed to the couple’s constant quarreling. The lack of joy, food and tolerance caused both emotional and physical suffering for Ellen and Paul. It seems as if the shift from city- to rural life hit Ellen particularly hard as she seems to be very frustrated about her present situation and even afraid of what the future might hold for them. She feels as if she was living in a cage or a prison, and deep inside she knew that there is no way out of it. It is obvious that the setting is essential in causing havoc in Ellen’s and Paul’s lives.
Therefore, to answer the question of where these feelings of isolation, loneliness and, in the end, even madness originate, we must consider the extreme unfriendly and even claustrophobic environment as a major factor. Other likely reasons would have to be Paul’s stubbornness and his foolish manly pride that made him ignore his wife’s request to change matters by setting up new priorities. For many years she has tried to persuade him to leave the farm but she has failed every time due to his reassuring comments about a better life.
Because Paul is unable, or maybe even unwilling, to change, he eventually destroys his marriage and family by further contributing to his wife’s state of depression and, ultimately, insanity. It is only after Ellen’s desperate run into the sandstorm, in which she sees freedom, and their baby’s death when Paul realizes his mistakes but it is already too late. Their child is dead and his wife has lost her mind. Consequently it can be seen that both of Ross’ analyzed stories are, in fact, examples of how not to deal with isolation.
By creating and describing both stories’ setting so vividly, Ross succeeds in reinforcing our own understanding of isolation, by taking us in the midst of this unfriendly and devastating environment. He makes us almost feel Ellen’s geographical and emotional isolation which eventually drive her into a state of madness. The Lamp at Noon is “especially powerful because it resonates with the unique historical conditions of the 1930s, when dust storms scourged the West, hard working farm families lost their land, and some people went mad” (Stouck 2005, 91). The lamp in The Lamp at Noon itself is a symbol of hope but when it dies out in the end all hope seems lost. It can be argued that Ross “does not simply present the landscape and weather as a cause for psychological disintegration but also deploys it as a metaphor to develop the inner landscape of his characters, the landscape thus serving as the objective correlative of the feelings and the states of mind of his protagonists” (Pauly 1999, 70).
The Old Woman by Joyce Marshall is another prominent example of how isolation can lead into madness. Molly and Todd got married in Molly’s homeland England. Soon afterwards Todd traveled to Canada leaving his Molly behind. She joins him after 3 years because she had to take care of her ill mother. When she arrives in Northern Quebec she realized that Todd has changed since their last meeting. Molly starts her life in the new environment like many women before her, by taking care of the household. Her husband was preoccupied with his job to notice that Molly felt unpleasant in the new environment. Instead of helping her to adapt to the new life, he becomes more and more distant, less talkative and absorbed by the machines in “his” powerhouse.
After a while, Molly finds her calling as a local birth helper but, to her disappointment, her husband is disapproving towards her newly found occupation. He wants her to stay at home all day and to be like the other obedient wives without ever second questioning him in spite of his negligence towards her. In order to cope with her isolation she nevertheless decides that she must occupy herself in some way. She finally feels needed, something Todd does not understand nor desire. In the end it does not matter how Molly feels anyway because her husband has lost his mind after 3 years of living and breathing with the machines at the power house – he has “fallen in love” with them. In this story the gender roles and immigrant stereotypes have been turned upside-down.
Not in the sense of male or female roles and duties but the fact that a local man, instead of a female immigrant, goes mad in the end distinguishes this story from others. There is a sharp delineation between the two possible approaches to the foreign territory. Since the machines have always been between Todd and the land, he has been unable to relate adequately to others. In his limited and confined existence he has, in the end, even gone insane. At the same time his wife discovers a personally satisfying role as a midwife in a French-Canadian community. Her productive approach thus carries her across apparent linguistic and cultural boundaries and across her isolation. (Pauly 1999, 64)
In contrast to The Painted Door and The Lamp at Noon, where the female protagonists were the ones whose lives were destroyed by their actions out of isolation, loneliness and their dependency on their husbands, Molly, despite her inconvenient situation, lack of attention from her husband and her fear of loneliness, seemingly succeeds in overcoming the obstacles that were put in her way. By not taking the repressions of her husband any longer and deciding to pursue her own interests, Molly stands as a representative of a new feminist ideology which, however, can’t be compared with today’s notion of feminism as it had to undergo decades of changes and development to improve the roles and lives of women to the stage as we know them today. Unfortunately, women’s roles still differ very much. They strongly depend on the location, culture and religion the women live in.
Classic gender roles were also turned upside-down in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s story Extradited. In it we find a “striking portrait of a petulant and narcissistic woman and her devastating examination of jealousy” (Stephenson and Byron 1993, 12). The protagonists of the story are Samuel “Sam” O’Dwyer, his wife Bessie, their baby and a man named Joe who was helping them on their farm. Sam and Joe quickly became very good and close friends. While reading the story one could even think that Sam, although twice of Joe’s age, might even hold deeper feelings for him (homoeroticism?). After a while, Bessie is annoyed by Sam’s admiration for Joe and as soon as she finds out that Joe is wanted by the police for a legal offence against his former employer and that there is a 1000$ reward for the one who catches him or turns him in, she immediately grabs the chance she considers to be the one that will ensure them a better life.
However, after Joe’s heroically rescue of Sam’s and Bessie’s baby, and him drowning after saving it, Bessie, although informing the police of Joe’s whereabouts, stays without the reward but has inevitably to deal and live with her husband’s scorn as she has to bear the blame for a good man’s death. Bessie probably thought that she was doing the right thing. We would normally expect a man to act rational and women emotional at that time and place. However, in Sam’s and Bessie’s case it is the other way around. It is Sam who acts emotional, by wanting to protect Joe, and Bessie who acts rational, by wanting the reward in order to buy a new farm and within to pave the way for a better life for herself and her family. Therefore, it is the woman, not the man, who is a representative of realism, whereas the man can be seen as a romanticist. This example makes it clear that women were also aspiring beyond the domestic sphere and not only victims of their husbands’ arbitrariness.
This stands in opposition to the naturalistic ideas of earlier eras where women had to stoically accept their traditional roles, i.e. teacher, maid, housewife, devoted mother, and had to sacrifice their own happiness for their children’s and/or husband’s sake. Women should repress their previous experiences and knowledge after getting married and were mostly appreciated as long as they kept their physical charms. In Canadian short fiction immigration is the process which, in many cases, causes isolation and alienation. It is a long and complex process as starting a life in a new country can be very difficult. The issues of immigration seem to have affected women particularly hard. In order to keep themselves sane and deal with the harsh realities that the early pioneers had to face, women, who mostly spent their time at home, wrote diaries.
Susanna Moodie, who was one the most famous chroniclers of the early Canadian immigrant experience, was describing the negative aspects of environmental and social isolation among early immigrants in Roughing it in the Bush. Moodie’s sister Catharine Parr Traill even advised men to consult with their wives before emigrating to Canada as most immigrants were completely unprepared to live in such an unfriendly and unfamiliar environment. Brian, the protagonist of Moodie’s short story Brian the Still Hunter, is also, like Ellen from The Lamp at Noon and Ann from The Painted Door, a victim of isolation. However, the first and foremost reason for Brian’s isolation is alcoholism. As a result his extensive drinking has isolated him from society and even his own family. Alcohol has transformed him into an unpredictable character.
This is why society treated him as an outsider. When Brian was drunk, he was not able to speak normally to anyone, not even his wife. Their relationship was put to the test due to ever-changing periods of guilt, shame and anger. He felt emotionally isolated, worthless, and he even attempted to commit suicide. He fails in this intention and matters get even worse for him. Afterwards he quits drinking and chooses physical isolation for himself instead. He is slowly falling into a state of insanity as he loiters about the land with only his dog by his side to keep him company.
Many immigrants could not deal with the formidable reality which the Canadian landscape prepared for them and fell into a state of madness. Madness most commonly might have appeared due to some of the following reasons. It either developed as a consequence out of the confrontation between the ideas and lifestyles of the Old and the New World, or out of geographical and environmental differences (dangerous wilderness, plain and/or artic landscape). This new environment was not only dangerous to one’s physical but also psychical health. It was hard not to lose your identity while facing the limits of your capabilities and still keeping your sense of inner (subjective) and outer (objective) reality balanced.
…while the plains sometimes provoked the outbreaks of insanities, the primary cause is often to be found elsewhere. These causes range from economic frustration, isolation from the people, frustration growing out of an inability to adapt, personal displacement and loss of identity, to guilt and isolation. All these are parts not only of a physical environment but of a mental landscape. Women’s nerves overstretched and they usually became depressed and silent whereas men more often turned to violence in order to act out their rage and frustration. In some cases these states were permanent, in others they were temporary and subsided after a finite period of time. (Pauly 1999, 53)
Stories like The Lamp at Noon and The Old Woman can be best described as examples of “Pioneer Realism” and/or “Prairie Realism”. Besides Sinclair
Ross, other prominent “Canadian” authors who dealt with the prairie experiences were Martha Ostenso, Laura Salverson and Frederic Philip Grove. In their works, these authors start their stories with a naïve or, we might even say, romanticized, view of the immigrants’ arrival to Canada. Later on, all become disillusioned by the setting and gradually alienated from their new home. These stories “generally include a ‘prairie patriarch’. […] he is usually presented as a land-hungry, work-intoxicated tyrant. The farm women are subjugated, culturally and emotionally starved, and filled with a smouldering rebellion. All in all a fertile ground for conflict and all kinds of mental instabilities.” (Pauly 1999, 54)
As an immigrant, your well-being will largely depend on your ability to adapt and deal with the given circumstances. Though those two stories are set in different locations, the first in a prairie and the latter in the Canadian North, both still are fictional stories dealing with the issues pioneers experienced when they first arrived and became aware of how dangerous it really was to be out of tune with the land. While some succumbed to the unknown and fled, lost their minds or even died, others luckily found other forms of distraction from the isolation which surrounded them, making their existence bearable.
In continuation, other forms of dealing with the harsh realities of everyday life will be analyzed. These are the stories of escapement from the “sane” into a subjective “insane” world in order to survive. The protagonists of these stories are all isolated and alienated from other people, not necessarily because of an isolated landscape, but rather because of their dissimilarities. “[A]lineation is withdrawal from something – becoming strange and foreign to it, being put out or taking One’s self out and thereby becoming a stranger – separated. Since humans feel vulnerable when they are strangers, the emotional essence of alienation is fear and hostility” (Henry 1971, 105).
The “sane” world can therefore be even seen as life-threatening to the “stranger” because all it wants to achieve is to isolate him even further and to destroy his reality. Ultimately, there are three choices a “stranger” can make. He can either let the “sane” world take over and destroy his very essence, he can protect himself by playing along, pretending to be someone else by acting out roles, or he can escape into his own reality where he alone decides what is right and wrong, what the truth is and what only illusion.
Louise and Morrison, the protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s short story Polarities, are working colleagues in an unnamed dull city in the northwest. They came to this city because they could not find any other job elsewhere. Morrison finds this dullness rather irritating and the northern city a hard place to live in. Louise however claims that you just have to have “inner resources” to turn to when matters get tough. After some time, Louise started acting and talking strange. She would find meaning in things other people would not, as Morrison states: “she’s taken as real what the rest of us pretend is only metaphorical” (Atwood 1993, 69). Morrison more and more started to believe that there is something seriously wrong with Louise, as her strange behavior is not to be ascribed to fatigue or the abuse of substances, a fact another colleague also acknowledges.
Morrison and Paul, the other co-worked, eventually agree that it would be best for Louise to be institutionalized. Nevertheless, Louise almost convinces the doctors that she is perfectly fine but she eventually makes a mistake and they decide to keep her hospitalized. After spending some time in the hospital, Louise’s intelligence begins to deteriorate due to the extensive amount of drugs she was forced to take. She almost stopped talking to anyone and it was obvious that she suffered tremendously, especially on the inside. It seems that before she had been taken to the mental hospital she was a little strange but nevertheless managed to get along in everyday life. All that remained now of Louise was an empty shell as she became only a shadow of her former self.
Margaret Gibson was another author who wrote about oversensitive people unable to live in a “normal” society. Due to her mental state, she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, she could relate to and identify with her writing as few authors before her. Nevertheless, she claimed that her works are not autobiographical. In her collection of short stories entitled The Butterfly Ward, she tried to explore the boundaries of sanity and insanity. Her own experiences as an outsider gave her the opportunity and ability to present a “stranger’s world” in a unique and exciting way.
It is important to recognize at the outset that Gibson’s primary concern in relation to the theme of madness is with the responses to mental illness, rather than with its causes or manifestations. While she clearly does not neglect the latter issues, her writing often focuses upon the ways in which those categorized as mentally ill and those assigning the label respond to the condition. (Pauly 1999, 106)
Her short stories The Butterfly Ward, Making it, Ada and Considering Her Condition are great examples of her writing creativity. In the beginning of The Butterfly Ward we are introduced to Kira, the story’s heroine, who is staying at a hospital and is undergoing various extremely painful and brutal tests and examinations in order to determine what is causing her mental “condition”. As the story progresses, we get a glimpse of her earlier life. Before being admitted to the hospital, she worked in a home for mentally challenged children.
Unfortunately, she had a very ambitious mother who dreamt of a better life for her and her daughter in Russia. Her mother is convinced that Kira’s occupation does not suit her and that she would be better of studying at a university. Kira becomes a victim of her mother’s ambition and pressure under which she, eventually, collapses. She is still aware of her surroundings but nevertheless decides to live her life in her own fantasy world which she considers a better place than the real world where she is being locked up and heavily medicated.
The protagonist of Gibson’s story Ada is a girl of the same name as the title and who is, like Kira, residing in a mental hospital. As the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the patients of this institution are being heavily mistreated and denied any basic human rights. The only visitor Ada has is her mother. Although we might think that her mother would like to help her to get out of the hospital as soon as possible, she does not show any genuine intentions of helping or understanding her daughter in her need. After some time, Ada realized that she cannot expect any help from anyone, and denies her mother, and other family members, visits because they do not understand her.
More and more she drives herself into isolation from others and even from her own feelings. Ultimately, her isolation causes her to lose touch with reality entirely –so we might think. When another “inmate” joins the group at the asylum, the patients are presented as seemingly smarter than their doctors, as they are easily able to manipulate with them as in the case of Alice.
However, Ada and her best friend Jenny manage to escape their isolation but must pay a very high price for it. Jenny, who wanted to protect Ada from Alice’s abuses, stands up against Alice and within she awakens Ada from her inner retreat. By later killing Alice, Ada awakens from her mental slumber and ends her child-like existence. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Ada’s retreat in her own world was, in fact, her strategy to survive in a depressive and live-threatening environment such as the mental asylum where normality of patients (their thoughts, emotions, actions) is considered as something abnormal. For Gibson, therefore, abnormality can be seen as the only way to survive in an inhuman and egoistic world.
A similar story to Ada is Making It where the protagonists Liza, a schizophrenic, and Robin, a male homosexual transvestite, try to make something of their lives. Both of them try to hide their true nature because if they would not they would be considered as outcasts in a society intolerant of “crazy” people. Although they desperately want to fight society’s categorizations and prove them wrong, they are, nevertheless, unable to do so. Liza, who becomes pregnant, sees her baby as her own way of “making it” out of her troubles. Robin, on the other hand, sees his “salvation” in becoming a famous women impersonator in California’s entertainment industry.
They are convinced that motherhood for her and fame for him will make them “normal” in the eyes of society. In the end of the story the two once again decide to live together like a regular, but in their case platonic, couple. Robin even rejects the men of his dreams in order to be able to help Liza to live a “normal” life. Unfortunately, happiness stays out of reach for them as they, after Liza’s baby was born dead, once again fall into isolation and feel alienated from society. Although considered abnormal, Robin and Liza’s feelings of belonging, friendship, helpfulness and love for one another are something we would have trouble finding in the “normal” world. For Gibson, we, the “sane” readers, are the ones who make existence for people like her protagonists unbearable and force them into isolation and self-destruction.
In Considering her Condition, it is a man named Steven who drives his wife Clare into suicide after she gave birth to their baby son. Steven is a very suppressive, bossy and egoistic character. Clare never even wanted children but after Steven persuaded her it becomes clear that he never thought about what is best for her but rather what is best for him. Later in the story we get to know that Steven already has a child but has no contact with her anymore. When Clare was pregnant, Steven became obsessed with the baby and did not care much about his wife anymore. He even denied Clare her right to chose abortion despite the doctor’s advice to terminate the pregnancy.
Claire must suffer enormously just to fulfill his desires and wishes. Gibson gives us a picture of how married couples’ lives can be destroyed by polarities and traditional gender-roles. Steven will not let Clare have her own life and she does not have the strength to fight his demands. Her suicide is the only action she can realize out of her own will. Not even her death affects Steven as he never though of her being more than a subordinate wife and the mother of his children. Considering her Condition can be seen as Gibson’s strong critique against a society that denies women their right to choose their own way of living and thinking and breaks their spirits by taking away their desires, pride and self-esteem. The analyzed stories in The Butterfly Ward:
…focus upon individuals who have become objects of scrutiny to others. These others, … , exercise a great deal of power over those who have failed to adapt to the expectations and demands of normal society. First and foremost among those strategies is simple observation. Whether an individual is labeled paranoid or simply maladjusted, the effect is similar. The individual ends up excluded from normal existence and confined within another territory. The responses of those thus observed, excluded, isolated and confined are various, but all, in some way, reveal attempts to escape this condition. (Pauly 1999, 116)
Not only individuals can suffer tremendously under the influence of isolation but also whole communities. In W.D. Valgardson’s story Bloodflowers “the setting seems to imply that even today, people will tend to resort to primitive rituals when isolated and severely tried by living conditions” (Neijmann 1996, 311). It is the story of a young teacher named Danny who moves to an isolated island, called Black Island, where superstition is still widely spread among the island’s local community. Danny at first just wants to witness an ancient local fertility ritual taking place annually on the island. The ritual consists of sacrificing a man in order to conclude any misfortunes that have happened in the past year and might continue into the next one.
Unfortunately for Danny, as misfortunes continue to happen, the locals consider him to be the cause of disturbance and they decide to sacrifice him in order to save themselves from further harm. It seems as if the local people are not having any trouble “justifying” the murders they have committed with superstition. In this story, where Valgardson makes extensive use of irony, we get to see the serious consequences (misunderstandings) that may occur when different or conflicting cultures cross paths. In Rudy Wiebe’s Where is the Voice Coming From?, the notions of isolation and alienation can be ascribed to the native Canadian inhabitants. The isolation of the indigenous (ethnic) voice and the question of a “Canadian identity”, by this I mean telling the other side of Canadian history (of the aboriginal inhabitants) too, are issues Wiebe tries to address.
Its most prominent themes would have to be the social and cultural injustices and consequently isolation and alienation suffered by the indigenous people after the European settlers have taken over their lands. In conclusion it can be said that people were often driven mad by loneliness and isolation and some even saw death as their only means of escaping it. Others, who also lived in isolation, developed psychotic behaviors which not only made them self-destructive but also a threat to others. Taking into consideration all of the authors and their stories that deal with the themes and motifs of isolation, alienation, loneliness and madness, one cannot fail to observe that isolation has an extremely negative effect upon the development of the individual’s character in Canadian short fiction and probably also Canadian literature in general.
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